Kingdom Hearts II

The Cat's in the Cradle

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine (except Mr. Strife) and the story is! The title is from the old song, the inspiration being that the father here was never around for the son (though this father is of course horribly despicable, unlike the one in the song, and the son here never wanted to be like him). The original concept is something I've wanted to do for a while, but save for the flashback and the confrontation idea, this plot is something that came out over the past few days when I started writing a hurt/comfort story. A bit of a warning: the flashback especially contains thematic elements, including a child picking up a gun--though his intentions are not malicious. And this information is not really important to the plot, but this fic does take place at some point after Bend and Break. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help!

He found Cloud laying in the road, gasping in pain as he gripped his left wrist. Blood ran over his right hand and between his fingers, dripping to the asphalt. Less serious cuts and scrapes were visible on both arms. His right eye was mostly concealed by blond bangs, as usual, but his left was visible and filled with agony. His clothes were torn, his wing laying limp behind him in the street. When he saw Sephiroth coming, he looked away.

"Oh great," he mumbled, his voice strained. "This is so pathetic."

Sephiroth fell to his knees, staring at the younger man in shock and disbelief. "What happened?" he demanded, reaching for Cloud's left arm.

"Car was coming," Cloud said, slumping back to the ground. At the same moment, he released the death grip on his left wrist, allowing Sephiroth to take hold of it. The dark blood oozed from the wound, dripping onto Sephiroth's gloves. His wings stiffened.

"There's broken glass all around you," he said. "It looks like a vein in your wrist may have been cut."

"Yay." Cloud closed his eyes, pained. "Well, half the town thinks I'm emo anyway. If this thing scars, now they'll all think I tried to kill myself."

Sephiroth grunted. Taking a cloth out of his pocket, he pressed it against the wound.

"I don't get it," Cloud said, blearily watching him. "I tried to get out of the way and I thought I'd made it, but then it hit me anyway. Driver acted like he was drunk."

"Then he probably was," Sephiroth retorted. Still holding onto Cloud's arm, he gripped the other's shoulder as well. "I'm going to teleport you to the hospital," he said. "You may have internal damage."

Cloud was feeling too ill to protest. A weak groan escaped his lips as the pain flared again. Then his wing stiffened and his eyes flew open.

"Sephiroth!" he exclaimed.

Startled, the tri-winged man looked down at him. "What is it?" he asked.

"The guy . . . he looked like my dad," Cloud gasped. The strain was too much for him. He slumped against the road, slipping into unconsciousness.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as he began to concentrate for the teleport. Cloud's father was dead. How could he suddenly be here, hitting his own son with a car? It was probably a delirious hallucination Cloud had experienced because the driver was intoxicated. The emotional wounds driven into Cloud's soul by his wayward, alcoholic father had gone very deep.

The light glowed around them, fading to reveal the hospital lobby where they had suddenly appeared. The receptionist stared down at them in alarm.

"Get a doctor," Sephiroth growled. The last time he had teleported into the hospital, it had been with Zack last summer, after Hojo had repeatedly shot the brunet. Cloud's injuries were surely not as severe, unless there was more damage internally than Sephiroth thought. And in any case, the vein needed prompt attention. He could bleed to death from that alone.

The woman nodded, still horrified as she picked up the telephone.

Cloud groaned, turning his head to the side. "Dad," he choked out. "Why did you come back? You're not supposed to be here. . . ."

Sephiroth brought his hand to Cloud's forehead. Though he could not gauge the temperature while he was wearing gloves, he hoped to be able to calm his friend with the motion. Cloud was not fully awake, but he jerked at the touch.

"Your father isn't here," Sephiroth said. "It's only me."

Cloud's wing thumped on the carpeted floor. Slowly he went limp again.

Sephiroth watched him, his eyes narrowed. No matter the explanation, Cloud was badly shaken by what had appeared to have happened. And . . . was there any chance he could have seen correctly? What if his father never had died? What if the man had come back and was up to his usual ways? Sephiroth and Zack would both have plenty to say to him if he had injured his son with his carelessness.

The silver-haired man looked up as the medical team hurried through the doors of the emergency room. They were quickly drawing closer, but he did not release Cloud's wrist until the doctor reached them and could take hold of it himself.

"His vein was cut by broken glass," Sephiroth explained. "He's a victim of a hit-and-run."

The doctor nodded, his expression sobered. "We'll get him on the stretcher and into the emergency room right now," he said, fastening the makeshift dressing temporarily closed long enough for him and the others to lift Cloud up. The nurses gawked at the limp bat wing, as if wondering what to do with it.

"The wing is part of his body," Sephiroth said, noticing their confusion. "Don't hurt it."

They laid Cloud on the stretcher, bringing the straps around his torso and legs to secure him in place. The wing hung over the side and to the floor until the doctor reached and brought it up, laying it across Cloud's chest.

"Do you know this man?" he asked as they turned the stretcher around to face the emergency room.

"Yes," Sephiroth said. "He's . . . we're friends." He had been going to say "He's my friend", but had decided to alter the statement at the last minute. Otherwise it could sound one-sided. And they had realized some time back that it most definitely was not. Each cared deeply for the other.

The doctor nodded. With that they were wheeling Cloud ahead and through the doors, which automatically closed behind them. Sephiroth turned away, staring down at his blood-coated gloves. He pulled them off, shoving them into his pocket.

He needed to call Zack.

Zack was both worried and furious when he burst through the doors several moments later. His lavender gaze scanned the waiting room, quickly discovering Seph standing by the window. He hurried over, awkwardly threading his way around chairs and people. "Seph!" he exclaimed. At the same time, Seph turned to face him.

"There hasn't been any news," he said before Zack could ask.

Zack swallowed hard. ". . . Was it really bad, Seph?" he queried instead, his voice sobered.

"It looked bad when he was laying in the street, yes," Sephiroth said, "but it probably looked worse than it was." At least he hoped and prayed so. He had been trying to remain detached from the events so as to keep himself from worrying, but it had not altogether worked. No matter how he told himself it was foolish or unnecessary, he could not cease from being concerned. The memory of Cloud laying in the road amid blood and glass would not remove itself from his mind. And then he had hovered between awareness and senselessness, moaning about his father. . . .

A fist clenched. "When I get my hands on the creep who did this, he's gonna wish he'd never taken a drink tonight," Zack vowed. "I'll have the book thrown at him!"

"I know." And Sephiroth certainly did. Zack was vicious when someone dear to him was in trouble. He would prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.

Zack was also liable to forget things when he was upset. With his leg greatly healed, he had taken to not using the cane around the house. Outside the house it still seemed wise to make use of it, as every now and then he was prone to a tumble. But tonight he had left it behind.

"You're missing something," Sephiroth grunted.

Zack blinked in confusion. "Missing . . . ?" He glanced down at himself. Everything seemed in place; he had not forgotten anything he needed to wear. But then realization dawned. "Oh, my third leg," he said, slapping his forehead. "What with worrying about Cloud, and the Jeep needing repairs and having to call a cab to get here, I didn't remember it at all." He looked back up at Seph. "But it's not a problem, really! I'm doing great without it."

"You're certainly doing better than you were," Sephiroth acknowledged.

He hesitated. He did not like to repeat what Cloud had said in a likely fit of delirium, but Zack needed to know. "Zack," he began, "Cloud told me he thought the man looked like his father."

Zack stared at him. "But . . . that couldn't . . . !" he gasped. "His father's dead! And even he . . . surely he wouldn't have . . ." But he trailed off. When drunk, Cloud's father could do anything. If he was alive, and had not changed, it was possible that he could have struck Cloud with his car. Zack was not even sure if the guy would care. It was awful to have to wonder that about a father, but Zack had long ago found Cloud's father to be absolutely despicable.

"I don't know whether he was just hallucinating or not," Sephiroth said. "Did he ever know with absolute certainty that the man was dead?"

Zack ran a hand through his hair. "He was in his car, trying to outrun the Heartless," he said. "Or at least that's what it looked like. We found the car at the edge of town, all scratched and beaten up, and Heartless climbing all over it. So . . . well, we figured that was the end of him. I can't imagine him being strong-willed enough to keep a human form as a Heartless."

"From what I've heard, I can't either," Sephiroth grunted.

"We also couldn't see how he could've managed to get away from 'em," Zack said. "So he was on the casualties list and added to the memorial they put up for all the victims. Cloud didn't wanna pay for a headstone in the cemetery. He said they should keep the space for somebody who really deserved it."

Sephiroth nodded. "What do you think?" he asked. "Do you believe Cloud was seeing things tonight?"

Zack gave a helpless shrug. "I don't know," he said. "I wish I did. I guess he didn't manage to get the license number."

"If he did, he didn't mention it. He was probably in too much pain to notice." Sephiroth crossed his arms.

"Hit-and-runs are always so hard to catch," Zack muttered, his tone obviously bitter. He raised regretful and saddened lavender eyes to meet Seph's. "Man, it's nasty that you keep having to find us all hurt, pal," he said. "Me last summer, Cloud now. . . ."

"Each of us have seen the others in unpleasant states," Sephiroth said.

Zack nodded. "Yeah . . ." He looked away, memories of finding Seph dying on the battlefield turning through his mind. He had been so helpless then, trying to get Seph to stay alive and awake and being forced to watch the blank look in his dear friend's eyes. . . . Even now, several years after Seph's return, he found it hard to comprehend that the man was back.

And Cloud . . . his childhood friend. . . . How badly had he been hurt tonight? What if it was as bad it had looked, or worse? What if he was seriously injured? What if he would even die? No, he could not bear that thought! Cloud was strong and stubborn. He would make it. He had to make it!

The thought of it being Cloud's father who was responsible made his stomach turn. He could still remember the crummy way the guy had acted, even when he and Cloud were just kids. Cloud had often wanted to escape to Zack's house, where not just one but both parents were normal, yet on the other hand he had worried so much about his mother. She had not been a pushover, and yet for some reason she had not wanted to leave her husband. Maybe she had not known where to go and had not wanted to impose on anyone. But after what had happened that one night, that one, horrible night, she had ordered him out. And for some reason, he had left. He had never been back. Both Zack and Cloud had been relieved.

"Zack . . ."

He started, looking up at Seph's voice.

"Cloud's going to be alright." Normally Sephiroth did not give such reassurances. He felt that no one could actually know whether or not it was the truth, and he abhorred delivering possible false hope. But somehow, this time he believed it was true.

Zack managed a weak grin. "Yeah . . . he'd never let his dad beat him," he said. "Or any other drunk driver."

Sephiroth nodded, laying a hand on Zack's shoulder.

For a moment Zack was silent. ". . . The last time Cloud's dad was at the house was so awful," he said at last. His voice was haunted.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked. Of course he found himself wanting to know what had happened, but he did not want to push Zack into telling the story. Zack would tell it if he felt like it.

"Yeah," Zack said. "I think so."

A round of angry cursing awakened the child from his sleep. Instantly he knew what was happening; it was the same every time. He gripped the pillow, stiffening under the covers. Dad had come home late again. And he had probably lost at gambling. He would not sound that mad if he had won.

"What is wrong with you?" Mom was angry too. "You stay out half the night, lose more money, and come back smelling like twenty bottles of rum."

More cursing. "It's my life, ain't it, woman? What were you doing all day? Taking care of the brat?"

"He's your son! And for Heaven's sakes, he's been sick. You know he's just getting over the flu."

"Probably faked it so he wouldn't havta go to school."

"He had a temperature of over one hundred! How could he fake that?"

"Don't know. Don't care, either. Why'd we havta have a kid, anyway? Do you know how much it costs to feed 'em?"

"We'd have plenty of money if you wouldn't waste it all on card games!"

He shut his eight-year-old eyes, burrowing into the pillow. He did not know what he had done to make his dad hate him so much. Maybe just existing in the first place. The man always made sure to let him know that he was unwanted. His mother always strived to make the opposite clear. Zack did, too. They loved and cared about him. Why couldn't he and his mother go live with Zack and his family? There would be room, and they would be welcome there. But instead they had to keep staying here, with this awful person.

A vicious slap. "What I do is my own business!"

A sickening crash and a cry of pain brought Cloud upright in bed. His heart began to gather speed. "No," he whispered, the horrifying sounds of a human body being beaten reaching his ears. "Not again. . . . Not again!"

He leaped up, running to the door and throwing it open. His mom was being hurt! His dad had hit her before, but in the past he had stopped after a couple of times. Now he was not stopping. As the boy reached the living room, he could see her on the floor, struggling to crawl away. The drunken monster would not let her go. His fingers dug into her hair as he pulled her head back.

"I've had enough of this!" he roared, his eyes wild. "I've had enough of you always coming out of your place and disrespecting me! And you've been teaching the brat to do it, too!" He thrust her hair away from him, snatching her wrists instead as she grabbed for him. He shoved her against the wall.

And Cloud ran forward, leaping onto his back. "NO!" he screamed, wrapping his arms around his father's prickly neck. "Let Mom go! She hasn't done anything!"

His father swore, releasing Mrs. Strife as he snatched Cloud's small arms. With his mother's cries of panicked alarm ringing in his ears, Cloud was thrust from Mr. Strife's back and to the floor. Heavy fists came down on his own back.

"You stay out of this!" Mr. Strife fumed. "I'm well within my right!"

"You aren't either!" Cloud yelled. He wanted to fight, but he could not even turn himself over. He gritted his teeth from the pain. A harsh blow sent a scream of anguish tearing from his lips.

At the same time, Mrs. Strife was frantic to get her son away. "Stop it!" she cried, her voice strangled. "You don't know what you're doing!"

"I know exactly what I'm doing!" was the infuriated retort. "I'm teaching this ungrateful brat a lesson! And don't think I'm done with you, either!"

In desperation she scanned the room for anything she could use to stop him. The only thing in reach was a whiskey bottle. She grabbed it up, breaking it over her husband's head. He rocked back in surprise, shattered glass and liquor trailing down his face and over his clothes.

Without wasting any time, she scooted across the floor and gathered Cloud's poor body into her arms. She trembled as she held him, laying a gentle hand in his wild blond hair and the other against his shaking back. Mr. Strife was already recovering. He was about to go into a frenzy because she had broken one of his precious bottles of alcohol. And then there was no telling what he might do.

"Please, God," she begged as Cloud moaned in her arms. "Please send someone to help us!"

The man stood up, brushing away the last particles of glass as he towered over his wife and son. The veins on his forehead were bulging, his expression twisted in unbridled hatred. He spit a vile curse directed at his wife. Without warning he lunged, ripping at her arms to pull Cloud away from her. She screamed, fighting to hold onto her child.

Cloud screamed too, desperately kicking out at his father from behind. He was helpless, so helpless. He had wanted to save his mom, but now she was in worse danger because of him. He could never do anything right. Maybe, he decided, what his father said about him was true. Maybe he should not have ever been born.

The unlocked door flew open, banging against the wall. "What's going on in here?!" a familiar voice demanded in outrage.

All Strifes looked up in shock. Twelve-year-old Zack Fair was standing in the doorway, surveying the scene in disbelief.

Cloud was the first to break the silence. "Zack!" he exclaimed. For the moment he was not embarrassed at being held in his mother's arms--though that would definitely come. Right now the pressing thought on his mind was, What was Zack doing here?! It was nearly three in the morning; he had caught a glimpse of the clock in his room.

Mr. Strife stared at the older boy, his astonishment being replaced by drunken fury. "SO!" he roared. "My son called you for backup, did he? I should have known he'd drag someone else into it. He never can keep things in the family!"

"He didn't call me at all!" Zack retorted. "Don't you know your own kid better than that? He wouldn't want to bring anyone else into it." He stepped inside, leaving the door open behind him. "But it sure looks like I needed to barge in. What the heck are you doing to your family?!"

Mr. Strife cursed again, this time directed at Zack. "Get out of this house, boy," he growled. "This ain't any of your business."

"It's darn-tootin' my business!" Zack cried. "I'm not leaving until this stops."

"Oh, it'll stop alright," Mr. Strife vowed.

He lunged at Zack. The raven-haired boy leaped out of the way, punching at the man. Being drunk made him stronger, but he did not always move as fast as he otherwise would. And Zack, who was training hard in hopes of going into the military someday, landed the blow right on the side of the drunkard's jaw. He staggered back.

"Get out of here!" Zack ordered, looking to Cloud and Mrs. Strife. "Run for help or something. I'll hold him off."

Mrs. Strife shakily began to get to her feet, Cloud held firmly in her arms. Her eyes shone with worry. Zack was a good fighter, and strong, but he was still a boy. And her husband was a raging monster when inebriated. In good conscience, how could she possibly leave Zack here to face him alone? Not that she or Cloud could really be any help, but it still seemed horrible.

"Put me down, Mom!" Cloud pleaded. "I can help!"

"No!" Mrs. Strife exclaimed. She stumbled forward, holding her child even closer as she moved towards the kitchen. They would not be able to leave by the front door. They would have to go out the side way. But she still did not want to go at all, not when Zack would be left behind.

"You've already helped a lot, pal," Zack reassured, dodging another swing. "Get going!"

Making her decision, Mrs. Strife tore ahead for the kitchen. Cloud gripped at her, still staring at the confrontation over her shoulder. His father was grabbing for something inside his pocket. Black metal gleamed as it caught the reflection of the light overhead.

Innocent blue eyes widened in horror. "Zack, look out!" he screamed.

Zack caught sight of the gun in the same moment. He gritted his teeth, dashing to the side as Mr. Strife fired. Even with all of the guy's faults, he had not realized that Mr. Strife carried a gun that he would use on a kid.

The gun went off again, just barely missing Zack's foot. He leaped behind the man, reaching to grab at his arm.

Cloud wriggled until he pulled free of his mother's grasp. He could not leave Zack in this mess! He could not! Running forward, he grabbed a small step stool by the legs and dragged it with him. Before Mrs. Strife could stop him, he was struggling to lift it. His back was burning from the earlier beating he had received. His arms could hardly stand the added pressure. But he forced himself to pick it up.

Mr. Strife was fighting against Zack, who was still behind him. He tore his arm free, firing without warning as he spun around. At such close range he could not miss. Blood spurted as Zack cried out and stumbled back. His foot hooked around a chair, sending him to the floor with a twisted ankle.

And Cloud let the stool fly. "ZACK!" he wailed, panic, anger, and horror all manifested in his voice.

The stool hit Mr. Strife in the legs. The gun flew out of his hand as he slammed to his knees.

Cloud tore forward, running into the living room with his mother right behind. The gun was laying on the floor right near him. If he picked it up, then his father could not use it to hurt anyone again. Zack was sprawled on the floor, clutching his arm in pain. Mrs. Strife was struggling to stay standing, the damage to her own body far worse than she had thought at first. Trying to remain upright and run was bringing it all upon her in full force.

The small hands closed around the gun. Cloud lifted it up, shaking as he pointed it at his father. "Don't!" he screamed, as Mr. Strife moved to hit Zack across the face. "Don't hurt him!"

The gun clicked. Mr. Strife froze at the familiar sound. He turned to face his son, disbelief written across his features. But then his expression twisted in a sneer. "You couldn't use it, brat," he said.

Cloud glowered, his hands still trembling. Guns hurt and killed people. He knew that all too well. But he was terrified for his mother and his best friend. He did not know what to do.

So much happened at once. Zack forced himself to sit up, striking Mr. Strife with the fallen telephone. The man yelled and cursed, whirling on Zack once more as his fingers curled in the direction of Zack's throat.

Cloud was still holding the gun. "I SAID DON'T!" he wailed, closing his eyes.

The revolver fired as it was taken from his hands. Police sirens wailed in the distance. His father's body crashed to the floor with a grunt. His mother enveloped Cloud in a close, protective embrace, even as his eyes flew open again and he stared. Had he done that? Now he could not remember if he had fired at all, let alone whether it had been on purpose or if it had been an accident. Zack was laying on the floor again, breathing heavy. Mrs. Strife was softly crying, hugging her son.

And Cloud's sensitive nerves completely snapped. He sobbed, clutching at his mother.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as Zack finished telling the story. What a horrible nightmare for anyone to go through, let alone an eight-year-old child. And Zack had still been so young himself. . . .

"What did happen to Cloud's father?" he asked quietly.

Zack sighed. "Cloud didn't shoot him," he said. "I knocked the creep out. But Cloud still doesn't remember if he fired the gun, even if he missed. And honestly, I'm afraid I don't know either. I was focused on hitting the jerk. I think it probably just went off, like guns sometimes do. . . . But if Cloud'd been really panicked, and I know he was, he could've done it. He wouldn't have really meant to shoot even someone like his dad, but he was so freaked out by everything and worried about me and his mom. . . ."

Sephiroth nodded. "Wasn't the father arrested after what he had done?" he frowned.

"Yep. So that put him out of the way for a good while," Zack said. "When he got out on probation, he never came back."

". . . How did you end up going there?" Sephiroth wondered. "Weren't you asleep?"

"Yeah, I was," Zack said, "but I had a weird dream and woke up feeling like I needed to check in on Cloud. So I headed down there and found that awful mess. Hate to think what would've happened if I hadn't shown up."

". . . How were you and Cloud after it was over?" Sephiroth looked at him.

Zack shrugged. "Me, I was just fine. Bullet only grazed me. I had to hobble for a few days because of my ankle, but then I was good as new!"

He looked to the window, his sad lavender eyes reflected in the glass. "Cloud . . . well, it took him a lot longer to get over it. In fact . . . I'm not sure he really ever did. He started feeling like he had to get stronger so he could protect the people he cared about. It became such a big obsession with him that by the time the Heartless attacked and destroyed everything, he just felt so angry and helpless that he left the refugee camp. And . . . well, you know the rest."

Sephiroth gave a slow nod. He did indeed.

"What about now?" he mused. "Do you think he still feels the same?"

Zack looked back to him. "You've really helped him a lot, pal," he said. "He has gotten stronger. And he's gotten back a lot of his confidence in himself."

Sephiroth grunted. "I'm sure it's mostly been because of your influence," he said.

"I dunno," Zack said. "I sure couldn't get through to him before." He stretched. "But he did start listening later. So let's just say we both helped him and leave it at that."

Sephiroth allowed a small smirk.

". . . Have the police been by yet?" Zack asked.

"Yes, while you were on your way here," Sephiroth said. "I couldn't tell them any more than I told you. They called someone to check their records on Cloud's father, but they doubted there was anything to it."

"I really hope there isn't," Zack said. "If he's back . . . I don't know how Cloud will take it." He gave a weak smirk. "I don't know how I'd take it," he admitted. "I'd probably say Hello and punch him in the jaw."

"I don't doubt it," Sephiroth smirked. "In fact, I'd enjoy seeing that."

The door opening brought them both to attention. The doctor came out, making his way over to them. Sephiroth recognized him as the same doctor who had pronounced Zack dead last summer. He still thanked God that pronouncement had not remained true.

"Well?" he demanded.

"How is he?!" Zack exclaimed.

"He's going to be fine," was the reply. "He was badly banged up, but nothing life-threatening after we took care of the vein and stitched his wrist. His and your quick thinking after the accident kept him from losing a lot of blood." He looked to Sephiroth as he said this, then back at Zack. "Though he has a bump on his head and a couple of bruised ribs."

"Ooh." Zack winced. "Is he awake?!"

"Heavens, yes." The doctor shook his head. "He's already saying he wants to go home, too."

A smirk played on Sephiroth's lips. Yes, Cloud would be just fine.

"Can he be brought back?" he asked. "We'd make sure he stayed in bed."

The doctor sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Ordinarily I'd say he should stay overnight because he shouldn't travel yet. But you can do that . . . what do you call it? That thing where you suddenly appear somewhere."

"Teleport," Sephiroth supplied.

"Yes, teleport." The physician nodded. "Well, if you did that, I suppose that would take care of the travel problem." He paused. "He doesn't appear to have a bad concussion, but he will need to be watched closely for the next few hours," he reported.

Zack saluted. "We'd check on him every hour, if we should," he chirped.

"Well, for goodness sake, take him!" The doctor waved his hand. "He'd be much happier at home, I'm sure. And that would help him recover."

"Oh yeah!" Zack grinned, draping an arm across Seph's shoulders. Sephiroth could feel the relief in his friend's touch. He turned his head, meeting the lavender-eyed gaze.

"Come on, Seph!" Zack declared. "Let's go get our pal."

Sephiroth nodded, relief washing over him as well.

Cloud was, indeed, awake. He was laying in bed, a dark robe and sleep pants adorning his body. His bangs fell over his right eye, hiding the scratches on that side of his face.

He sighed as he looked at the tiled ceiling above him. If he got really bored, he could always try counting the number of holes in one tile. Of course, he would probably either lose interest almost immediately or else lose his place after getting way into it and become frustrated.

He turned his head to the side. There were only vague memories of what he had said to Sephiroth after the accident, but the driver's face was still flashing through his mind. It had looked like his father. There were no longer any doubts in his mind about that; what he did not know was if it really was that deadbeat creep.

A fist clenched at his side. What if it was true? What if his father had not died in the Heartless attack? What if he was still around and could come to bother Cloud any time he pleased?

Cloud had not been able to forgive him for the past. He had never shown any real love to his family. Instead he had attacked and beaten them when drunk, and even now and then when he had been sober and furious. It was largely because of him that Cloud had come to feel so worthless--or more precisely, because he had not been able to protect his loved ones against the crazed man. The Heartless attack years later had only compounded those feelings. His mother had died. His friends had been hurt. Their world had been vanquished.

Yet he had thought that at last he would be free of his father's shadow. Instead it had lingered, taunting him, letting him know that he was not good enough; he would never be good enough. And he had let himself be driven to anger because of that taunting. He had told himself that his father had been responsible for making him what he had become, so bitter and filled with hatred. Then he had thrown the blame on Sephiroth as well, after the tri-winged man had appeared and had begun making Cloud infuriated.

He would no longer blame a shadow for his own mistakes. Sephiroth had taught him that and had made him realize that he had to own up to what he himself had done. He would always be indebted to his former enemy for that.

But now, when things were finally starting to go right for him, there was the chance that his father might not be only a spectre.

Great, he thought in bitterness. The only other member of my family who's possibly still alive is the one who doesn't even deserve it.

And he would be compared to that creep. He was sure of it. After all, he really had been thought of as a black sheep by most of the townspeople. The wing prejudice was dying, but bias against Cloud Strife continued. They wondered why he had left the refugee camp after the Heartless attack. They wondered why he had spent years traveling. And they wondered why he had come back.

It just never stops, does it.

His wing twitched, as if in acknowledgment of his monologue.

He wanted to get out of here.

The door flew open. He started, seeing the movement out of the corner of his eye. As he turned back to look, Zack was hurrying into the room. Sephiroth followed at a normal pace.

"Hey pal!" Zack greeted with cheer and joy. "Wow, it's great to see you awake! Seph really had me worried when he called."

"Yeah, I'll bet." Cloud looked to Sephiroth. The older man looked back, his visage impassive. Two years ago, Cloud would have wondered if Sephiroth really cared about him. Now he did not need to wonder. It was just Sephiroth's way. If either Zack or Cloud was seriously hurt, they would know he was worried. As it was, Cloud knew Sephiroth was relieved and glad to find Cloud in such good condition.

"How are you feeling?" Sephiroth asked.

Cloud shrugged. "Mostly just ticked off," he said. "I don't want to stay in this place." He left the rest unsaid. He did not want to be alone with his thoughts. His father would torment him some more until he managed to sleep, and it was not likely to stop there. Then the creep would enter into his dreams.

"The doctor will let you come home if I teleport us back," Sephiroth said.

"And if you stay in bed and we keep checking on you for a concussion!" Zack added.

"Really?" Cloud began to push himself into a sitting position. "Let's get out of here, then." He gave an involuntary wince as pain shot through his body.

"You shouldn't have done that," Sephiroth grunted.

The bat wing twitched. "Yeah, whatever," Cloud grumbled.

Sephiroth gripped Cloud's shoulder, reaching for Zack's as well. They in turn grabbed onto him. He spread his wings, half-shielding them as he concentrated. A bright flash of light encircled them, fading to leave them in Cloud's bedroom at home.

Cloud slumped backwards into the pillows. "Finally," he said, the relief obvious in his voice.

"Do you want anything, pal?" Zack asked, leaning back as Cloud's wing spread out on the bed. It must be so alleviating to stretch it; the hospital bed had not allowed for that option.

"I don't know." Cloud could not think of anything. He was really too wide awake to consider sleep. Not knowing about his father was bothering him more than he wanted to admit. And though he did not want to say this, either, he did not want to be alone in his room any more than he had wanted to be alone in the hospital. His thoughts could run wild here, too.

But Zack sensed it, as usual. He plopped into a chair.

". . . Do you remember what you told Seph?" he queried at last.

"That I might've been hit by my own father?" Cloud retorted. "Dear old Dad, always ready with some loving greeting."

"The police have been looking into it," Sephiroth said. "Do you remember what the car looked like?"

"Not really," Cloud said. "I just saw these two lights come around the corner, so I jumped out of the way. But they followed me."

Zack stared. "That almost makes it sound like the driver was trying to hit you!" he exclaimed.

"Or that he was so drunk he didn't know what he was doing." Cloud shrugged. "Not that I'd put it past my dad to want to run me down."

"But you're his son!" Zack exclaimed. "You're the only family he's got. Why would he want to hurt you?"

"Why did he ever want to?" Cloud said. "He never liked me. He always thought I was worthless."

Zack's shoulders slumped. He remembered that all too well. Even so, he had tried to cling to some shred of hope. After all, surely Cloud's father had to hold some regard for his own flesh and blood, if for no other reason than that he was an heir.

"He probably really didn't know what he was doing," Zack said now.

"Heh. Maybe," Cloud consented. "Who knows."

Sephiroth was still standing, his arms crossed. He was not certain what he could offer to the discussion. He had been raised by a stern but caring father. It was almost impossible for him to fathom a childhood filled with abuse and unkindness, though of course he knew such things existed. Even Zack likely knew better than Sephiroth how to handle the situation and talk to Cloud, since they had grown up together and Zack had met Mr. Strife on more than one occasion.

Cloud looked to him. It was clear how awkward Sephiroth felt in this conversation. But he was staying anyway, attempting to offer some kind of support. In the past he would have felt that it was not his place to be there at all. And Cloud would have felt the same. Weird, how they had come to want to look out for each other.

The night passed in a fairly peaceful manner. Cloud eventually fell asleep, not appearing to be suffering any serious effects from his experience. Zack and Sephiroth lingered, mapping out a plan to alternately wake up to check on him each hour. Cloud grumbled during the checkups, but he cooperated and assured them he remembered his name and whatever else he was asked. He never woke up completely and was always able to return to sleep. Towards dawn, Zack and Sephiroth both dozed at the same time, in their separate rooms. In this way they all slept for a good while, until Sephiroth was awakened by the telephone in the late morning hours.

Zack was soon awake as well. He yawned, stretching as he climbed out of bed and shuffled to the door. Hopefully Cloud was okay. Zack had not checked on him for the last few hours, since he had been so deeply asleep. Maybe Seph had looked in on him, not wanting to wake Zack up any more after seeing that he was asleep at last. Or maybe Seph had not even been able to wake Zack if he had tried.

He pushed the half-open door aside, peering into the hall. Seph was just leaving the hall telephone. "Hey Seph," Zack greeted. "What's up?"

Sephiroth turned, his expression unreadable. "The police called," he said, getting right to the point. "They've caught Cloud's father."

Zack gaped. "Where?!" he exclaimed.

Now Sephiroth looked disgusted. "At the edge of town, sitting on the damaged hood of his car and drinking whiskey," he reported. "When they questioned him, he seemed to think that he had hit a large bat. But they found part of the red cloth from Cloud's cape caught in the broken windshield."

Zack gripped the edge of the door. "What'd they tell him?" he asked.

"That he was under arrest for driving under the influence, as well as for hitting someone and not even stopping." Sephiroth sighed. "I don't know if they told him the full story yet. His only reaction was expressing surprise that it had been a person he had hit and not a bat."

Something unreadable flashed through Zack's eyes. "That creep!" he cried. "He probably won't even care when they do tell him the rest."

"When they tell who what?"

Both Zack and Sephiroth started. Cloud had come to the doorway of his room, looking out at them. His hair was wildly sticking in every direction, but it could not conceal that he was rapidly blinking to get the sleep out of his eyes.

Sephiroth met the bleary blue-eyed gaze. "Your father has been taken into custody," he said. "The evidence indicates that it was him who struck you."

Cloud's eyes narrowed. "So the guy's back, then," he said, his voice dark.

"Looks that way," Zack said slowly. "What're you gonna do?"

Cloud shrugged. "I don't know. I don't want to have to do anything. But I'm guessing I have to go make a report or something."

Sephiroth nodded. "They were wondering when you'd feel up to it. I said I didn't know, but you were supposed to rest right then."

"And still are," Zack supplied. "The doctor said you have some nasty bruises along with that bump."

"It's not so bad," Cloud retorted, absently running his right hand over the bandage on his left wrist. He averted his eyes, looking down at the gauze. Images were flying through his mind. He remembered the car slamming into him and how he had been carried onto the hood. The windshield had shattered, sending glass everywhere. Then he had fallen to the hard road amidst the shards, his left wrist stinging.

"Cloud?" Zack asked, his voice revealing his obvious worry.

". . . Right up to now, I didn't really think I'd have to deal with this," Cloud mumbled. "I thought I wouldn't ever have to see him again and I could just live my life and mind my own business."

"You wouldn't have to see him," Sephiroth said. "You could file your report and leave."

Cloud shook his head. "Not seeing him would bug me," he said. "Just because of wondering if he's still the same. I guess he is, or he wouldn't have been driving drunk. But I still want to know."

Zack nodded in understanding. "Okay then," he said. "You'll get to know. But you shouldn't go yet. Stay and rest some more. Have something to eat!"

Cloud smirked in amusement. "You just never give up."

"Of course not!" Zack declared.

"Maybe I'll have something in a while," Cloud said, turning to head back to his room.

Secretly, there was another reason why he wanted to see his father. He wanted to tell the man exactly what he thought of him and all that he had done over the years. He wanted to let out all of that pain he had been keeping inside. Maybe saying that stuff would not help him feel better. But he still wanted to say it. He wanted his father to know just how badly he and his mother had been hurt. He wanted to scream it in the creep's face and then demand to know why. Why had they always been treated like dirt? Why had his father not cared? Why, why, why!

Sephiroth watched until Cloud vanished into his room. Then the silver-haired man looked to Zack. The brunet had been watching Cloud as well. And he could sense what Cloud had not said. It was not hard for those who knew Cloud to piece together what he was thinking.

"He's gonna have a big confrontation with his dad," Zack said at last.

Sephiroth nodded. "There's no doubt of that," he agreed.

"Cloud'll be okay," Zack decided resolutely. But the worry did not vanish from his eyes.

Sephiroth laid a hand on Zack's shoulder. Cloud would want to be alone to talk to the man, but Sephiroth and Zack would still go with him to the police station. They would offer support to him from a distance. And they would also support each other in their concern for him.

Gregory Strife did not live up to his name.

"Gregory" is a dignified name meaning "watchful" or "vigilant." Mr. Strife had been neither.

His was a tragic story whose downward spiral had begun with unwise choices. Alcohol and gambling were his two main vices--and had been for years. His love of winning did not always make that result come to pass. More than often, he suffered miserable losses. Even now, he had countless debts, and almost as many people demanding their payment. Perhaps he would be able to pay off at least some of them if he did not spend the small bit of money he had on liquor, but as it was it did not seem as though he would ever be able to make himself stop. He had overheard the police saying that maybe the judge would decide to have him enter into a twelve-step program as part of his sentence, which he had no intention of doing.

Now, as he sat in his cell and studied the floor, he was still trying to comprehend that what he had struck the past night had been his son.

It was more surprising than anything else. When the large, leathery wing had spread out on the windshield he had been certain it was some kind of bat. Dumb kid must still be getting into all kinds of stupid things, he decided, if a wing had somehow sprouted. And according to what the police had said, Cloud was going to be just fine. He had just been a little banged up, was all.

Mr. Strife was not certain how he would have felt if he had actually killed his son with his carelessness. He had never really liked the brat; Cloud had always been alternately shy or defiant, and hanging around that Fair boy had built up his confidence so that he had been shy much less.

But he was still flesh and blood, and Mr. Strife was not altogether heartless. Somewhere deep down, perhaps he still had a certain affection for the kid. Right now, however, he was trying to think of how he could use the boy to get him out of a mess. He hated being caught by the police, but something much worse could happen to him outside of these cold walls.

The sound of a door sliding open brought his attention upward. A guard had arrived at the head of the small corridor. Behind him came a spiky-haired blond wearing a tattered red cape. His eyes were hidden, but Mr. Strife did not have to see them to know that this was Cloud.

"You've got a visitor," the guard announced, pausing to let Cloud go past. "Ten minutes." With that he disappeared to the other side of the sliding door, allowing them their privacy.

The blond stopped upon arriving at the correct cell. Now he raised his blue-eyed gaze to meet the other's. His eyes were still the color of ice, but they were filled with fire.

"Hello, Dad." He spit the word out as if it was sour.

Mr. Strife's lips pulled back in a smirk, revealing yellowed teeth. "Well, boy, you've grown," he commented. "You don't look too much the worse for wear after what happened last night." He stood, walking over to the barred door.

Cloud glowered. "I didn't think it'd mean anything to you," he said. "You never did care if Mom or I got hurt. You always wanted to help it along."

A shrug. "You can't blame me for what I do under the influence. I get real nasty."

"You're not much better when you're sober," Cloud shot back. "I remember you hitting Mom whenever you lost your temper, whether you were drunk or not."

"And it looks like you've inherited this legendary temper, too," Mr. Strife sneered. "Runs in the family, you know."

A fist clenched. "Look, I didn't come here to shoot the breeze," Cloud snapped.

"See, there you go again," the unshaven man grinned.

Cloud's lip curled as the alcohol-scented breath hit him in the face. "I'm going to press charges," he said. "You've hurt me too many times, and this time I'm fighting back."

Mr. Strife came closer, gripping the cool bars in his rough hands. "Now let's not be so hasty," he said. "You wouldn't really hurt your old man, would you? What if I could . . . promise you something?" He glanced up and down the hall, as if to make sure no one was listening.

"Like what, all your gambling debts?" Cloud snorted. "Do you really think I'd fall for more of your lies?"

"But I'm your father, boy. And look at this, your hair's still unkempt." Mr. Strife reached through the bars to move the bangs away from Cloud's right eye. In disgust Cloud backed away.

"Look," Mr. Strife said, deciding to try another tactic, "I really didn't mean to hit you last night. And I want to make it up to you somehow. I've got some real nice stuff nobody knows about--money, gems, that kinda thing--and I want to give it all to you. That's why I came back into town. But I can't give it to you if I'm cooped up in here with you pressing charges over a little accident . . ."

"Oh, and I guess all those other times were just accidents too," Cloud responded, his voice dripping with bitterness. "If you really have that stuff, it's probably either stolen or it has more debts that come with it. I don't want it. You can't bribe me like you always try to bribe the people who want money from you."

"Bribe?!" Mr. Strife exclaimed in false indignation. What Cloud was saying was true, and he knew it.

"Yeah, bribe," Cloud shot back. "I'm not greedy like that. Giving me some money doesn't make up for the past. It doesn't take away all the times I woke up in the night hearing you hurting Mom. It doesn't get rid of the times when you started hitting me. And it could never make up for when you were beating us both and Zack came over to help and you hurt him too."

"Oh yeah, I remember that." Mr. Strife sneered. "You actually picked up my gun, you little brat. You thought you could fire it to save your friend."

"Shut up." Cloud stepped back, his eyes flashing. "I'll never accept anything from you because I know you'd never be sincere about it. You'd never want me to have anything of yours unless you thought you'd be getting rid of some of your problems that way. I knew you wouldn't ever change."

"And you're still just as defiant and disrespectful as ever," Mr. Strife returned. "What's this about a wing of yours? Is that it under your cloak?" He smirked. "I heard about a lot of people angry over wings in town, but I never imagined my own son would be at the center of it. Quite a ruckus you caused. I'm almost proud."

"I don't care what you are. And I'm not showing my wing to you." Cloud moved forward again. "It's too late for this big show of caring. I hate everything you did and everything you're still doing. You were dead to me long before I found your car in the Heartless attack."

"Oh that. You know, I barely escaped," Mr. Strife mused. "The guy with me wasn't so lucky."

"I bet you left him behind on purpose so the Heartless would get him," Cloud growled.

"Hey, he was after me for a lot of dough. When the car suddenly got attacked, it was the perfect break. I even left some stuff of mine in the car so it'd really look like it was me that got it instead of the other guy."

Cloud turned away, thoroughly repulsed. "The ten minutes are up," he said. "There's just one thing I want to know--and I want the truth, not more garbage. Not that the truth isn't the biggest garbage of all, coming from you.

"Why didn't Mom and I mean anything to you?" he demanded, turning back to face the grizzled man. "What did we ever do to you that made you feel like we were nothing?"

For once Mr. Strife looked serious. "I never wanted a kid," he said. "Not really. You were a complete surprise. It wasn't anything personal against you, boy. I just wasn't ready for all that responsibility."

"Yeah, and you never did take it, either," Cloud muttered.

"As for your mother," he continued, ". . . I did love her, once. Things changed."

"And you fell in love with your rum and whiskey," Cloud retorted. "I wonder how Mom felt, being dumped for a bottle of liquor."

"You ain't got no right to talk," Mr. Strife growled.

"I can say whatever I feel like saying," Cloud said. "I never did get the chance to tell you before. You always beat me up first."

"And I still could, if I wasn't in here," Mr. Strife declared.

"It's not like it was before." Cloud met his father's gaze in furious determination. "I'd beat you at your own game. But you're not worth the trouble.

"The next time I see you it'll be in court. And that'll be too soon." With that he turned again, starting to walk away.

"So you're going back to that Fair kid, aren't you?" Mr. Strife called after him. "You always wanted to be adopted into his family."

Cloud paused. "Zack's still a brother to me," he said, not turning around. "And his dad was somebody I would've been proud to call my dad. I hate even having the same last name as you."

"Go change your name then," Mr. Strife retorted. "I couldn't care less."

"I won't change my name." Cloud's voice was filled with frost. "I'm going to prove that to have the name 'Strife' doesn't mean you have to go messing everything up."

"Oh really?" Mr. Strife's voice echoed off the walls in a way Cloud hated. "Just wait, boy. You'll find you can't escape from it. You took up with a no-good winged rebel too, didn't you?"

". . . You don't even have the right to talk about someone being 'no-good.'" Cloud resumed his pace. The door was not coming up fast enough. "The people I 'took up with' actually care what happens to me, and that's more than I could ever say for you."

The guard slid open the door as Cloud arrived. He stepped through, never looking back.

The sound of the door closing echoed as well.

Zack shifted nervously in the waiting room. It had been a long day, filled with Cloud being edgy and still not seeming to be hungry. And Zack had been worrying, of course--with Sephiroth trying to reassure him. Towards evening, Cloud had decided that he did not want to wait any longer to talk to his father. And so Sephiroth had finally agreed to teleport him to the jail. Zack and Sephiroth had been waiting for him for only ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

"Here he comes."

Sephiroth's voice brought Zack to attention. Cloud was coming back into the waiting room, his wing pulsing furiously under the red cape. He was limping slightly from the crash, but he was holding his head high, his shoulders back. He was angry, but determined.

Zack hurried over to him. "Cloud, buddy . . ." He looked into the furious blue eyes. "Are you okay?"

"He hasn't changed." Cloud looked back. "I'm still pressing charges."

"You should." Sephiroth had come over as well. "He shouldn't be allowed to get away with this behavior any longer."

Cloud nodded. ". . . And yeah, I'm fine," he said, remembering Zack's question.

"You sure?" Zack asked.

"Yeah." Cloud looked from Zack to Sephiroth.

He always had wanted to take his mother and go to Zack's family. His mother had long ago passed on, as had Zack's parents . . . but he and his mother had always been accepted as Zack's family. Now he was still part of it, and Sephiroth had been added as well.

Zack draped his arms around Cloud's and Seph's shoulders. "Then let's go home," he said in resolution.

"Home," Cloud repeated, as if hearing it for the first time. That sounded like a great idea.

Sephiroth began to concentrate on the teleport. His wings spread. In a moment they were back in their living room, just as they had left it.

"Now you oughtta rest some more, pal," Zack said, his voice not leaving room for arguments.

Cloud rolled his eyes, but crossed to the couch. Tiredly he sank into it, letting his wing spread over the top. He took one of the pillows into his arms. The immense softness of it was nice.

"I wish I never had to see the creep again," he muttered.

Sephiroth nodded. He could certainly sympathize with and understand that part of it. He despised and abhorred his biological father, Doctor Hojo. He never wanted so much as to hear the name again, let alone to see the monster.

"At least he'll get put away for a while," Zack offered.

"Yeah. A while," Cloud repeated. "He'll just get out again and then he'll probably bother me some more. He had something he was trying to pass off to me. I wouldn't be surprised if he's trying to get whoever's after him to come after me."

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. "If he does, we'll be ready," he said.

Zack nodded. "We're all in this together," he said firmly. "You, me, and Seph!"

Cloud leaned back, watching them again. It was true--they would stand by him. Now they were all each other's family.

It was strange to realize, especially considering that he had not wanted to be part of any family when he had been traveling through all the worlds. He had been bitter and angry, not thinking he deserved anyone when he could not protect them. Over time he had tried to tell himself that he preferred being alone. He had pushed away everyone who had tried to reach out to him, even Zack. But instead of pushing him away in return, as Cloud felt he deserved, Zack had never given up. He had watched over Cloud from afar, just waiting for Cloud to say he was ready for Zack to come back.

And Sephiroth. . . . Sometimes Cloud forgot altogether that Sephiroth was bound to him. What had started as an assignment that they had both despised had grown and changed into a deep friendship. The former General was wise but weary, serious yet not humorless. And Cloud cared about him more than he had ever thought he could care about someone whom he had hated.

"What a mismatched bunch," Cloud commented.

Zack plopped on the couch next to him. "Yeah?" he blinked.

"You're an optimist, we're pessimists," Cloud said, as Sephiroth sat down on the other side of the couch. "I grew up with a creep for a father, you two both had good guys to raise you." He looked to Sephiroth. "You have this outrageously long hair, we both have spikes."

Sephiroth smirked, looking rather pleased about his outrageously long hair.

Zack nodded in agreement. "But we've got a lot in common, too--we're all best buddies!" he chirped.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "That's so cheesy," he complained. He really did not mind--much; it was part of their normal routine and banter. Zack would say something that he would know would get a bored or sarcastic response from one or both of the others. They would then deliver whatever was their trademark reply.

It was part of the way they showed they cared.

"Food's starting to sound good," Cloud said. "Let's eat."

"Really?!" Zack leaped off the couch, pumping the air with his fist. "Yes!"

Sephiroth was amused. He learned further into the couch, crossing his arms. He knew how concerned Zack had been over Cloud not eating. Zack could not help showing his relief and excitement now.

Cloud shook his head. "It's just something we have to do every day," he said. "It's nothing to get that hyper about."

Zack looked back to Cloud. "But you haven't eaten for a while," he said. "You finally getting hungry is definitely something to get excited about! Besides, what's not to love about food?"

Cloud looked away, an amused smirk creeping onto his features.

This was so different from lonely nights when he had ordered out or had wrestled with the microwave to get something warmed. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he had not wanted to be alone. He never wanted to experience that again--and not just because Zack could actually cook.

"It's been a long time since I've had people fussing over me," he said.

Zack poked him on the arm. "Then it's past time for it!" he said.

"I'm not a kid anymore," Cloud retorted.

"There are still times when you act like one," Sephiroth remarked dryly, though he was not really serious. Cloud had grown up a lot since those times.

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, whatever." Though he looked put-out, he was not actually angry or annoyed.

"Aww, come on guys," Zack pleaded, his eyes filled with mock-sadness.

Both Cloud and Seph gave him unimpressed looks.

Zack smirked. "Well, at least you can agree on something!" he said brightly.

Cloud leaned back into the couch, smirking as he crossed his arms on the pillow. His father had not changed, but he himself had--and that was the most important thing.

He was home, with his very closest friends.

He was happy.